Travel to Florence, Italy

I grabbed the train at 9am from Modena train station and expected to arrive in Florence Santa Maria Novella station an hour and half later. How wrong was I. Well looking back on the positive side of things it wasn’t so bad that I didn’t check that the train I got on didn’t stop at the main station. I got a “free” visual tour (2 hours long) as I passed through the heart of Tuscany’s rural farmlands. Olive trees, wine grapes and rolling hills perched with beautiful little villas. I didn’t freak out at all, which is a shock looking back on all I have learned I think I have changed for the better (less uptight and much more confident). I got off the train at the town of Arezzo and waiting an hour for the next proper train to the main station in Florence. I ran out of the station with 30 minutes to spare, walked all around the town in search of a big jug of cold natural water and perhaps a bite to eat. I finally found a neat little spot that sells over 50 different freshly made pastas and 20 different pizzas. I told the lady I had 20 minutes till my train left and she buzzed into action! I was in shock as she made an excellent salami pizza in under 3 minutes (from start till sizzling cut up in a box finish). I ran to the station and hopped on my 2 hour local train to Florence just before it screeched out of the station.

I found my hostel rather easily (which is always a pleasure inducing first introduction to any city). The hostel is in prime location. The Academy (where the David is housed) is three doors down the street and if I look in the other direction I can see the Duomo Cathedral which takes about one minute to walk to. Excellent. After I unloaded my stuff I ran into the streets and popped into a neat little Italian bakery to stare at the wonderful creations. I heard the barking boom of thunder. The next two hours would be the most intense rain storm I have ever witnessed (worse than Costa Rican jungle and Trinidad down pour combined).

The streets were rolling rivers and stagnant ponds. I ran down a small alley and met a likely adversary. A huge canopy over the storefronts had created a wall of waterfall. I counted 1,2,3 and made a run for it. I think the counting made it fun but I still got drenched, anyhow, hadn’t I been praying, begging even, for rain the entire time I was in Modena? I ran through a few piazzas and found myself right in the heart of the famed Florentine open market. The entire place is full of canopied little huts where people sell silk scarves, leather jackets and belts, and touristy shirts. The rain had stopped and the locals were trying to dry off their merchandise (futile attempt I tell you).

The market is located on the street right outside the famed Basilica di San Lorenzo. It is the oldest and first church of Florence, originally built in the year 393! The cathedral has been reconstructed and expanded three separate times and the current appearance is attributed to Filippo Brunelleschi (genius man). I paid to go inside as it looked as though it would start raining again. The ambiance of the place was fantastic. The thunder started to rumble again and I walked up towards the alter of the church, popping in and out of the dark shadowed chapels. Thunder, lightening, offering candles a glow and creepy statues, makes the experience a bit more thrilling. The church has an amazing collection of artwork. Donatello’s Pulpits are located across from each other just in front of the alter. Filippo Lippi’s “Annunciation” is an incredible marble monument with cute little babies holding up drapes across the top. Other works inside the cathedral are Donatello’s “Martelli Sarcophagus” which is a glass and iron ornate coffin where you can gaze inside to find the remains of this old dead guy. I could actually see his skull with a crown on the brow and sandals with fugly looking feet. My final little jaunt before heading out was my visit to Michelangelo’s well designed Bibloteca Medicea (housed the thousands of scrolls owned by the Medici royals).

I exited the church and threw my shades on top of my nose as the sun had definitely made a grand entrance. I walked along Via de Cerretani (an amazing shopping street full of private boutiques that blast retro music). I arrived at the Piazza del Duomo (the symbol of everything Florence) which shows off the grand Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. The church is striking and has a huge dome at the far end. The church looks like a candy cane as it is built with white, green and red marble. I got incredibly excited when I peaked over at the Baptistery (where Dante was baptized along with many other famous folks). My mind raced back to first year art history and I stood mesmerized, standing right in front of the golden “Gates of Paradise” by Lorenzo Ghiberti. Getting to the front is a chore as hoards of tourists are snapping photos and the lovely Roma Gypsies feel they have the right to pull on your arm and thrust a cup into your face, demanding some sort of payment. It was 4:50pm and the dome was closing any minute so I couldn’t get inside just yet. I walked up to the train station to get a few glamour shots in front of Chiesa di Santa Maria Novella (another church, go figure). The highlight of my day was the trip to the grocery store. I bought 15 euros worth of food and was stunned by the shear amount I actually bought. I got a big block of Parmeggiano Cheese, Buffalo Mozzarella, Marinara sauce, Penne Rigate, a bottle of white wine, pine nuts, cherry tomatoes and several slices of prosciutto. I ate like a king as I made a huge plate of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, sliced tomatoes and mozzarella. Another plate was heaping with tomato sauce, cheese, pine nuts and penne. Good grief I was happy to get to bed.

The next morning I awoke at 7am to start my “tourist marathon”. The following will shock you as I saw so much, enjoy.

I staggered down the street to Galleria dell Accademia to get there an hour before it opened in order to secure a spot in line (which is about a 4 hour wait during the peak hours of the day). The entrance to the gallery is a simple little apartment door so it took me a while to find. The big hint was when I found a ton of graffiti on the wall, a good sign that board tourists had been standing there. I paid the shocking 9.50 euro to enter and ran past all of the initial galleries and right into the long corridor which houses the unbelievable David. I felt as though I was in some heroic film at the very end just before the credits roll. I was the only one in the entire room. I slowly walked past the ten Michelangelo statues (“the slaves”) which are famous for being only partially finished. My eye was on the prize, I finally made it to the very front of the statue and my mouth dropped as I realized how huge it actually is. I felt like a tiny little dot, the statue is amazing, real, popping veins and inconspicuous sling. The first thing you notice is that David’s hands and feet are way out of proportion with the rest of his body. I read on the little stand that the David was initially commissioned as a statue to be put on top of the Cathedral in the middle of the city. Therefore the great sculptor was creating the David so that it would look right from those standing at ground level looking up (tricky art and vantage points). Seeing the David was a WOW once in a lifetime experience, worth the money and more. I walked around the David for about 5 minutes all by myself (a private meeting I’ll call it) until the rest of the hoards found the bloody place (I hate being interrupted). This is when I decided to sit for 30 minutes and people watch.

The worst art gallery Nazis yet. Horrible witch woman, employees who literally scowl around the room screaming “NO PICTURES”. They start confrontations and I think they could easily take me out in the back and turn my well tanned skin black and blue. Of course I got a few pictures of the relic but in doing so my hands were shaking in fear and most of them turned out blurry (honestly I am more scared of Art Gallery employees than I am a gang of burly biker men). After I had had my fill of David I walked back to the entrance where I saw the rest of the gallery. The first gallery has many interesting holy paintings but the best part is the center of the room which houses Gionbologna’s original plaster of Rape of the Sabine’s. Corkscrew art at its best. Along a narrow corridor I visited the final room of the gallery which was a special exhibition of The Grand prince Fernando de Medici’s instrument collection. He was obsessed with art and music and had a huge royal collection of traditional European instruments; violins, bass, early pianos, cello, flutes, trumpets etc…

The next “leg of the race” was to the least visited but most important museum in the city. It is oddly open from 10am to 1pm every day! Doesn’t give you much time to visit so I had planned to make it my second stop after the early wake up line at the David. The gallery is called Biglietto D Ingresso which is a National Statue gallery. The gallery is located in a beautiful square castle which has a lovely little outdoor square in the center.
The following were my favorite highlights:

Giambolognas “Bacco” a cute little man holding a dish and wine grapes in the air. The famed Donatello Room houses the world’s largest collection of the master sculptor. The famed Bronze David (the first male nude of the Renaissance) was an interesting contrast from Michelangelo’s just an hour before. This bronze is a scrawny little 10 year old boy standing on top of Goliaths head holding a sword. The stark contrast between how each sculptor portrays this Biblical war hero was interesting; Donatello’s weak but full of holy power and Michelangelo’s perfect example of the Renaissance man who is strong and dependent. I noticed several other statues that I remember studying back in Art History class; St. Giorgio (marble statue of man with sword and shield) and another starving Saint called Desidu da Settigano. Interestingly enough there are two David’s by Donatello in the gallery. The other is marble and the subject is clothed and looked about 14. I can see why the nude little David made more of an impression in its time. The final little statue by Donatello was Amore Attis which is a bronze with gold leaf of a little 5 year old chubby boy with wings who is giggling and has a snake entwined in his feet (feet and snakes equals fits of tickles.)

I walked up the central main shopping street called Via del Coroso where I stopped into the Versace store and enjoyed the AC and tried on a few jeans which are valued at over 1000 euros each. After that little boost I walked to the Plazza della Republica where I took some snap shots and found an amazing little Italian man who sells fashion magazines. I managed to buy his last Italian Men’s Vogue summer set (three magazines) for 5 euro! I walked back to the Duomo to see inside the Cathedral. The mouth dropped again (my summer trip consists of several irregular mouth dropping experiences) as I saw the line to enter the cathedral. At the front they said the line up was over a 3 hour wait! The line wrapped around the cathedral two and a half times! Never had I seen something so ridiculous. My heart stung but skipped a beat when I heard my name and saw my friends from the hostel at the front of the line. They beckoned me over and thanks be to God I only had to wait 20 minutes to get inside with them. The highlight for me was the amazingly decorated fresco dome. I stared up to the top almost cracking my head off my neck to get the best view I possibly could (I would have preferred to get on my back and stare up but the Chinese tourists wouldn’t have it…they move in chatty hoards). I walked up and down the long hall to the alter and noticed many woman wearing blue paper parkas that resemble a hospital gown. I asked one of them if they were from a cult and they laughed and said they were told they had to wear them because they were dressed in a scandalous manner (no spaghetti straps here). It is funny to look into the crowd and find many young girls wearing hospital gowns as they stop and stare at paintings and statues.

I walked back to St. Lorenzo and paid to enter the Medici Chapel. The first room is octagonal in shape and has a huge painted dome that reaches far into the sky. Scaffolding was all over the place which was a bit of a bummer but two of the Medici tombs were visible. Talk about ornate! Each coffin was made of a different coloured marble, decorated in gold and roughly the size of a Hummer. I would love to have been a Medici Prince, I suit the role well I think. Everyone pays to see the Medici Chapel for one reason. Michelangelo’s Sagrestia Nuova (Day and Night sculptures). In the small little room you can find the most glorious and powerful statues of Day and Night which make up two tombs (Giulindo Ducca di Nemoms and Lorenzo Duca d Urbino).

The next stop (can you tell how exhausted I was already?) was the ever so famous Basilica of Santa Croce which has a huge statue of Dante at its entrance. The interior holds the tombs of the most famous Italians; Niccolo Machiavelli, Galileo Galilei, Gioacchino Rossini, Giorgio Vasari, Lorenzo Ghiberti and the brilliant Michelangelo Buonarroti. Michelangelo’s tomb is by far the most elaborate. Three women representing the three art forms (painting, architecture and sculpture) weep at the foot of the tomb, as if a part of them has died with the genius within. Beside his tomb is a statue which seemed oddly familiar, entitled “Liberty”. Did anyone else know that the Statue of Liberty was a knock off of this ancient Italian masterpiece? And to think all these years I thought the French were original…pfft. Leaving the main cathedral I walked outside to the Pazzi Chapel which is one of the first traditional Renaissance Church’s. Finally, I spent about 30 minutes walking through the on site museum which has a huge selection of Gothic paintings, statues and fresco’s.

My next stop was a walk along the cities river to the famed Vecchio Bridge. At this point in the day I heard a crack of thunder and rain started dropping onto my notebook. Two days in a row I was blessed by cool, refreshing thundershowers! Before the storm started I had a chance to peak at the famous bridge which is the only bridge to survive the bombings of World War II. The bridge is adorable as each side of the bridge is lined with little houses that hang over top the river. Colorful Tuscan shutters are surrounded by rolling hills dotted with little private vineyards. Before the weather changed from spitting to pouring I peaked over the street walls to get a glance of the river side. I saw a group of people snapping their cameras away so I walked over and noticed that a ridiculously amazing Haute Coutour Model shoot was going on. Sexy tall models sporting Versace were holding onto topless Italian Male model boys. Was I actually staring at this? The models were surrounded by PR people and a gang of about twelve photographers and lighting specialists. To top all stories, the models were ON the river, standing on a grass covered floating dock…genius. I ran up the sides of the Uffizi Gallery to the main square where a wild assortment of statues are on display. A fake copy of the David stands tall, and a huge ornate water fountain of Neptune and his cronies can also be seen here.

The lightening flashed and I darted into the entrance of Palazzo Vecchio where I waited in line as the rain shot down onto the streets with wild determination (I could actually hear screams as though people were being shot outside). The palace is fabulous, the official residence of the Medici Royals. The entire building is painted from head to toe. The ceilings are art pieces of their own as wood carvings and gold take on a whole new meaning. The first room you enter is the grand dining and entertainment room. On each side of the room are huge murals, the ceiling full of fresco and flanked on each side are many famous statues. My favorite statue is a bit crude. I stopped in my tracks when I looked more closely. The statue depicts two bearded muscle men in the midst of a tumbling fight. One of the men is holding the other in a tight grasp as his feet are in the air and angry face points towards the floor. The key to this piece of art is where the struggling mans hands are. The guy is grabbing the other mans penis. Basically hanging from the guys dick! I was just crude and I apologize…but you have to laugh (like I did). Who on earth would commission such a piece of art? At this very moment, all of the art I had seen all summer came flashing back to me and as I looked around my surroundings I realized how gay art is. Every major art genius was/is claimed to be gay. All you have to do is take one visit to an Italian art gallery and you will basically be staring through the eyes of a male diva (I mean really…the most frequent statue you see is always two naked muscle men wrestling. Who REALLY does that? Name one straight man and I’ll buy you lunch). As you walk to the corner of the palace you head out onto a nice outdoor veranda which gives a great view over the many winding city streets. The last room I visited was a bit of a shocker. A room full of ancient maps and in the center a giant iron globe. I read the little info about what I was staring at and it said that the Medici’s had the worlds largest and most detailed map collection and the globe I was staring at was the world’s FIRST globe! Talk about neat and nifty!

The rain had stopped so I left the palace and walked up via de Cazaiuoli which was a delight. This is the Bloor street of Florence and has some of Italy’s largest designer shops. I spent an hour inside the Dolce and Gabbana boutique which is the worlds largest (bigger than the one in Milano and Roma, shocking!) The place is absolutely amazing, I felt really grungy as a tourist but didn’t care at all. The staff are all gorgeous and the interior is full of diamond chandeliers and shiny black granite. I walked along the bottom floor and looked at a couple of very rich Italian ladies (with the lovely long thick dark black hair) trying on stilettos. I walked up the stairs and went ga ga over goo goo for the huge men’s collection. A few of the belts were on sale for 700 euros and snake skin shoes on sale for 1200 euros! What a steal! A great way to end a very very long day of tourist marathon mania is to visit a DG store. I tell you, run and do it now.

My day went down hill very quickly as I walked to the train station on my way home to book my quick reservation to Zurich. The line was reasonable but the initial four ticket counters ended up closing down to one lowly worker. I waited in hot sticky line up for about 2 hours! How ridiculous and anger inducing is that experience. I can never put into words! I took a chill pill once I finally got my reservation and quickly walked to the super market on the way back to the hostel before it closed at 8pm. I bought two ciabatta, two buffallo mozzarella, the best creamy pesto I have ever tasted, a bottle of Tuscan bubbly Chardonnay and a tub of Tartufo Gellato. My dinner consisted of an entire bottle of wine, two baked ciabatta smothered in pesto, chopped tomatoes and sliced mozzarella and heaps of chocolate and hazelnut ice cream. As I walked down the hall from the kitchen to my bed (stumbling from the buzz) I smiled…I had seen the entire city of Florence in under 12 hours (I am crazy).

My last full day in Florence consisted of another early wake up call. I was up at 6:30 am and briskly walked to the Duomo, past the Baptistery (which is completely empty at this time of day BIG travel tip). As I passed the cathedral the bell donged, a hint that it was 7am. My heart skipped a beat as I had the loud sounds of the cathedral bells all around me, empty streets (barely empty other than the little street scrubbing vehicles which were racing to clean the city before the thousands of people started their hectic days). I felt like I was in another movie, walking all alone down the main street to the Uffizi Gallery. I arrived in Piazza della Signoria and my jaw dropped (again). The day before I saw the piazza as it was a victim of intense rain shower. Today, early in the morning I could see the sun rising over the square, entirely empty with huge beautiful statues glistening in the early summer sun. I found the line for those who hadn’t reserved tickets and was happy to find out I won third place (a Danish grandmother came first and a couple from Thailand came second). Over the next hour and a half as I waited for the gallery to open the line grew and grew until it was nauseatingly long. The early bird gets the worm, go and preach that for me. The Uffizi is one of the world most spectacular galleries (I enjoyed it more than the Louvre personally). So so so many famous pieces I don’t want to bore you with the little guys so I will mention for my own personal record my favorite pieces.

1) Paolo Uccello, The Battle of San Romano
2)Domenico Venezuano, Madonna with Child with SS Francis, John the Baptist, Zenobius and Lucy (St.Lucy Alterpiece).
3) Filippino Lippi, Adoration of Magi
4) Sandro Botticellis “SPRING” and “The Birth of VENUS”
5) Hugo van der Goes “Portinari Triptych”
6) Leonardo Da Vincis “Adoration of the Magi” (famed charcoal scribbles), “Annunciation” (you feel like you are right there staring at Gabrielle telling Mary she is with child, and San Gerolamo which is placed right beside the Lippis version for an interesting visual comparison. Off to the side you can find a theater where an entire 30 minute video (with intense and exhilarating sound effects) can be watched. The entire video takes apart each aspect of Leo’s sketch of the Uffizi. You can clearly see all of his geometric lines as the sketch is not complete. The guy was a science geek and artist. When do you ever find these noble men in the 21st century! A dead breed if you ask me.
7)Rosso Fiorentinos famous Puto che Suona (angle playing the guitar).
8) Lukas Cranachs Adam and Eve placed beside Durers panels by the same name. For a personal note I prefer Durers as it has much more movement, body and detail.
9) Pittore Leonardesco, Leda (woman with a huge swan to her side and cracked open eggs with little naked babies inside).
10) Andrea Mantegna, Adorazione dei Magi (a curved and ornate trypitch).
11) Michelangelo Buonarotis FAMOUS and stunning The Holy Family with Young St. John the Baptist (Doni Tondo).
12) Titian, Venera d Urbino
13) Parmigianos odd Mannerist “Madonna dal collo lungo”
14) Jacopo Tintoretto, Adam and Eva davanti all Eterno
15) Michelangelo Caravaggio, Bacchus AND Medussa on Shield

Walking down to the 2nd floor I was excited to see an incredibly detailed exhibition on the master Leo. Da Vinci truly was a genius! The entire 2nd floor takes you through an art history lesson that focuses entirely on the very detailed genius who studied the geometry and science of art. Many of his interesting “inventions” were also on display along with a room full of his diaries and sketch books (gross cadavers I tell you) and the famed Vitruvian Man. Before I left the gallery I walked up the Cafe which has an amazing view of the city overlooking the Palace and Duomo. Passing by the three huge gift shops upon exiting I happily found a hall way which was running an exhibition courtesy of the Italian Gastronomic Tourism Society which had a vast display of every Italian food imaginable. Plenty of wine, olive oil, vinegar, cookies/pastries and cheeses. Heaven in a hand basket.

Today I finally got the chance to go onto the famed bridge and was pleasantly surprised. It is entirely medieval, you feel like you are walking back in time. The street is lined with incredibly expensive diamond jewelry shops (Who would have ever thought? I was secretly hoping that all of the little houses hanging over the bridge were actually owned by cute little locals as residences). On the other side of the bridge the streets were lined with pasta shops, bakeries and cafes as I walked up to the Palazzo Pitti. Another palatial Medici residence which I was not feeling the need to enter as I had seen so much already. In front of the palace you can find a ton of tourist stands selling little wooden Pinocchio’s, water colours of Tuscan sunsets and ornate Italian fans. I walked down a side street and stopped dead in my tracks when I found an amazing photo opportunity! A cute little Italian grandma was hobbling up a very steep cobbled street with her cane. I got down on the ground and took an excellent photo, picturesque memories. I walked along the river on the main street Lungano Cellini which is full of parked Vespa scooters. I arrived at the dazzling (and tiring) Piazzale Michelangelo, a huge mountain top park. The hike took me about 30 minutes and once I reached the top it was the hottest part of the day (kill me now). As soon as you get to the top you can see the 2nd replica of David which is a weathered bronze. The panoramic view from here is outstanding. You can see the entire city from the lookout and get some amazing pictures. I hiked back down the steps and crossed the bridge back over to the main city center where I found a chubby little Roma Gypsy putting on an excellent performance. I have seen her every day since I have been here (yesterday I saw her three times). I think she owns the city, she has all of the best locations, and she seems to hate me. I was taking a picture of a cute little bakery as I walked by her (throwing her cup of change in my face). She seemed to think I was taking a picture of HER and got off her feet and ran down the street screaming at me. Instead of actually being scared which I probably should have been I actually pranced in the street laughing. What a ridiculous way to end the day. On my way back to the hostel I bought a huge slab of fresh and soft Foccaci bread. One last home made Italian dinner and I am set.

After leaving the Internet cafe post huge 2 hour typing binge I walked past Santa Croce to find a huge mass of people crooning. Low and behold the one and only Roberto Benini (yes the famed Life is Beautiful genius) was putting on a slapstick open air comedy show for all to see for free. Once again I have totally lucked out. I had no clue what he was saying but I watched for an hour and stared at all of the locals who were laughing hysterically. His body language gives enough of the plot away anyways. I spent the late evening sitting on my bed in front of my huge open window (which stretches from ceiling to floor) and stared out into the red and yellow sunset over the Duomo and city center. I “attempted” to do a bit of night time reading before bed but the lights seemed to go out every 10 minutes or so (the city lacks adequate electricity during the summer when everyone is abusing the AC).

Florence is gorgeous, better than Paris, at the top of my list. Next time I come here I am going to make sure I have won the lottery so I can walk into Prada and Gucci looking all spiffy and get the attention I deserve. Until then I can dream can’t I?

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